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The Goliath Stone by Larry Niven and Matthew Joseph HarringtonTwo stars
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The Goliath Stone is a book that didn't need to be anything like the inane waste of time it's chosen to be. What offers itself to the reading public as a riveting hard SF thriller is in fact a glib, self-satisfied exercise in postmodernism and fan service that confuses exceedingly earnest attempts at cleverness with entertainment. It's a hell of a shame, as its premise holds so much promise — that our first contact with "alien life" will in fact be beings of our own creation — for gripping storytelling on the order of such Niven-penned classics as Lucifer's Hammer or The Mote in God's Eye. Yeah, it's brisk and highly readable at first. But you know, if something is going to wind up a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing, it could at the very least have given me some sound and fury to enjoy along the way.

It is customarily the case, when you see a collaborative novel between a legendary genre veteran and a complete unknown, that the complete unknown has done the lion's share of the work. This is a fine practice, as it gives a new talent a leg up in an increasingly difficult business, even if the famous guy takes home the larger check. It's getting your name out there, and associated with someone of impeccable clout with a fanbase built over many years, that's the real payday. But while the 75-year-old Niven cannot be held entirely accountable for what Matthew Joseph Harrington has written, he did lend his approval to it. So along with the larger paycheck, perhaps we can let Niven have the larger part of the blame.

The story is set in the 2050s. Toby Glyer is a doctor and engineer who led the way in developing the Briareus nanos, which have effected miracle cures and made him wealthy. A payload consisting of his company's nanites, mostly the brainchild of his old eccentric genius boss William Connors, was delivered into orbit as part of the Watchstar mission in the 2020s. The nanites were to break down and mine near-Earth asteroids, and the resultant wealth from all these new natural resources would be a cornucopia for humanity. But one mission went a bit awry. Unbeknownst to Glyer — but not to Connors, whose insight into things is, as we will see, nearly flawless — these nanites have reproduced, adapted, evolved, and become their own civilization, more numerous than humanity itself. They not only take over a nearby asteroid, which they name Foundry, but increase its mass by sweeping Earth's orbit of space junk. Then they proceed to steer this monstrosity towards Earth. Are their intentions malicious?

Great setup. And that's all. The protagonist of the story, we quickly learn, is not Glyer, but William Connors, who has used this nanotech of his own devising not only to transfrom himself physically to almost superhuman levels, but has infected essentially the whole human race as well via a flu outbreak. Not only has debilitating disease been eradicated, but the propensity towards terror and war. (As desirable as such a violence-free world might be, there's something distressingly fascistic about that implementation of it.) Also, women get to be young and sexy again.

Connors — once an aging near-invalid, now a reconstructed übermensch calling himself Mycroft Yellowhorse — is meant to be charming and impossible to dislike. Because he is a far-too-unsubtle Author Avatar, he's pretty much the opposite. Connors is one of those Captain Awesome/Marty Stus who simply knows everything about everything and is funnier and cooler about it than you could ever be. When Glyer and his companion, rocket scientist and pilot May Wyndham, are swept up by Connors in his quest to confront the nanites before the usual government stooges can do anything stupid, the majority of the dialogue is dominated by Connors. This gives co-author Harrington a platform for political filibustering (take note: author filibusters are a very different thing from the common practice of composing a story with a strong political theme), which puts this novel far closer to late Heinlein in its tone than what we might recall seeing from Niven. It is most certainly closer to Jerry Pournelle than Niven, to boot. Nonstop references to SF novels and writers make you feel like you're in some kind of nerd circle jerk.

I truly don't care on what side of the political field you play ball; I will still find authors annoying if they're proxying themselves through their heroes in the full expectation we will smile slack-jawed in envy and awe at their wit and brilliance. For one thing, I almost never see this trope used in service of furthering the story, as it definitely does not do here. And for another, when proxy lectures include such foolishness as global warming denialism — an exceptionally moronic position to take in a world where the north polar ice cap has just become a big lake — it can impede your story, to say the least.

And here, the story is most certainly impeded. As I mentioned, there is no suspense at all. At any time. None. The characters never once engage reader emotions, as they barely feel engaged themselves. They face nothing like a real threat. They never act like they're anything more than inconvenienced by the story's events. What villains exist are bumbling oafs who cannot even work up the energy to follow through on getting in our heroes' way. Toby Glyer and May Wyndham are a requisite late-Heinlein Perfect Couple whose dialogue is such obnoxiously cute banter, you'll want to suffocate them with pillows. And while I've read other books with non-committal non-endings before, The Goliath Stone feels so uninterested in its own story, that even it feels like it's ready to be put down in favor of something better by the time you reach the final chapters.